Mar 8, 2017

Book Review--Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane

Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane
Patrick McGilligan
Harper, 2015

The universally acclaimed Citizen Kane (1941) alone would have assured Orson Welles a solid place in entertainment history. That the 25 years leading up to that unique cinematic achievement were filled with enough success for a lifetime makes the novice filmmaker's accomplishment all the more remarkable. I've taken my time reading the 747 pages of Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane in which Patrick McGilligan tells that story and I am glad I allowed myself to linger. This is a fascinating book about one of the greatest artists to have existed.

McGilligan offers a thorough background to Welles' story, devoting nearly three chapters to his family and hometown Kenosha, Wisconsin before the baby genius is born. Even before his birth, you see the seeds of his work in his mother Beatrice and father Richard. The stage is set for a childhood of affluence, but much turbulence.

Beatrice Welles is most responsible for bringing out young Orson's artistic side. A devoted patron of the arts and piano recitalist herself, she schooled him in music, art and literature. As a child he spent a lot of time in the company of the famous singers, writers and actors who were a part of her social circle. When she died in 1924, at age 42, Dick Welles was not as able to take up the reigns of parenting as his by then estranged spouse had been, but the inventor and alcoholic gave his son another education as he accompanied him on travels around the world.

Papa Welles would die six years later, but not before he had ensured his son was firmly in the care of Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a close family friend. Known as "Dada", he would have a major, if complicated, influence on Orson. The young Welles was sent to the Todd School, where he would meet another caretaker of sorts and lifelong friend Roger Hill, who was headmaster and teacher and the first to give the teenage Orson the chance to direct a stage production. The two men would be as important as his parents, if not more so throughout his life. These varied early influencers are shown to form the foundation for Welles' remarkable early career.

As a teen, Orson traveled alone to Ireland, where he first found success on the stage. That early minor fame led him to New York City, where he would write a book of Shakespearean play adaptations, star on Broadway, become a director for the government theater WPA, start his own Mercury Theater company with the Brit John Houseman, become a famed radio player and somehow find the time to marry all before he was barely out of his teens.

Among the great successes of those early years: an all-black production of Macbeth with a voodoo theme set in Haiti, the controversy-plagued political musical The Cradle Will Rock, which would eventually be the subject of its own movie, and the legendary scandal that was Welles' all-too-realistic radio production of The War of the Worlds. These high notes, and the myriad successes and failures in between are dissected in great detail, with accounts from many of the players involved.

You get a great sense for how absorbed Welles was in his work, with little care for material gain, sleep or any sort of personal stability. He would drive himself to exhaustion, gorge himself on elaborate meals and forge forward with the next idea, or as was often the case, many ideas at once. It is exhilarating and draining to absorb all that Welles did in these years.

While the essential concept of the book is to take Welles' story up to the filming of Kane, McGilligan does describe aspects of the filming his first Hollywood movie while telling the story of its pre-production. These chapters are among the most interesting, because they show how deeply the roots of the filmmaker's childhood, education, early work and relationships are embedded in his first movie. In many ways, it would be his most personal work.

Young Orson would have been more effective had it ended with the director's first call to action on the set of Kane. The final chapter is a weak spot, full of interesting tidbits about the later years of his life and those who were close to him, but gathered in a jumble of incidents and anecdotes which lacks the flow of the rest of the book. It is possible that everything shared here could have been expanded into yet another biography about the last years of Welles' life.

Overall this is a stunning work. Drawing heavily on previous Welles biographies, including Simon Callow's acclaimed work and Barbara Leaming's version which was supported by the director, McGilligan prods at some of the assertions in these works, often correcting or at least thoughtfully question the record. Along with Harlan Lebo's Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey and Josh Karp's The Making of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles' Last Movie, I find it to be a deeply satisfying portrait of one of the many artist phases of this unique craftsman.

Many thanks to Harper for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. Thanks. His early years seem a lot like those of Charles Foster Kane.

  2. Yes Bryan! I discovered many more parallels to his life in this book. You could even make the argument that Kane is as much, if not more, about Welles than Hearst and all the other public figures that inspired it.